Re-thinking the quality of public space
«Quaderni di Sociologia»
call for papers
editors: Letteria G. Fassari, Martina Löw, Gioia Pompili, Emanuela Spanò
The many crises we have witnessed in recent decades, such as the financial crisis, mass migration and, more recently, the Corona pandemic and the tragedy of war, all indicate that the social changes we are observing do not follow a linear pattern, but are the result of inherent conflicts which produce contrasting or overlapping spatial effects. Tendencies to transgress national boundaries in trade, tourism or electronic communications are, for instance, contrasted by tendencies towards closure and new localistic pressures, re-bordering practices, and privatisation measures of all kinds (Knoblauch et al., 2021). In an attempt to understand the spatial transformations in contemporary society, Knoblauch and Löw (2017) draw on Norbert Elias’s notion of figuration (Elias, 1978), expanding it to introduce their concept of refiguration. According to these scholars, refiguration is an intrinsically relational term focusing on the interdependence of structures, levels and actions, maintaining the perspective on both macro and micro levels, as well as on the systemic and subjective dimensions; it is the contacts, tensions and conflicts between the different types of spatial figuration – network, place, territorial and trajectorial space – that characterise these changes.
Starting from these considerations this call for papers aims to invite investigations and studies on the quality of public space from a sociological perspective. Since the 1990s, the debate on neoliberal policies has strongly influenced the definition of quality. In the literature, the quality of public spaces has thus come to be read in dichotomous terms (see Carmona, 2010) by contrasting undermanaged with overmanaged space, with the former resulting from abandonment by institutions unable to counteract impoverishment and degradation, and the latter centring on the pervasiveness of the neoliberal market logic. In both cases, Carmona (2015) notes, it is argued that the quality of public space is on the decline as mixed public/private management models have led to a homogenization of the engagement with and experience of public space, and resulted in excessive privatisation marketing and exclusion tendencies. On the other hand, Carmona also refers to scholars who argue that in certain neighbourhoods and cities, public space seems to be currently expanding. Privatisation is, however, not a new phenomenon in these contexts, because public spaces have always been there for commerce and private business, too.
These criticisms are reflective of a normative conception through which the quality of public space is defined by adhering to the logic of the market – or by opposing it. This contrast might seem helpful, but it does not take into account the diversity of the different types of space in contemporary cities (Worpole & Knox 2007), nor the cultural changes that taking place. It also neglects the inherent ambivalence in the concepts of over- and undermanagement, as there are private or privatised spaces that manage to remain inclusive, and it is also possible to find degraded spaces that are capable of revealing sudden unexpected qualities (Carmona, 2010).
Coming back to the interpretative framework within which the question of quality has been predominantly analysed – i.e. neoliberalism and its instrumental apparatus constituted by New Public Management – there are indeed signs of its erosion, and the reasons are manifold. After decades of neoliberal policies, there is a shift to substantial public investments, deficit spending, mass vaccination schemes and investment in sustainability, indicating the return of the interventionist state (Gerbaudo, 2021). This does, however, not automatically imply a shift to more just and egalitarian societies since, as Gerbaudo notes, the state at this point seems to intervene to reduce investment risks thereby doing corporates yet another favour. The fact remains, though, that fresh approaches to read and analyse the quality of public space must be ignorant to this crucial change in regulations.
Furthermore, and by no means less important for studies in social and cultural change, a sociological analysis of public space must be open for investigating the meanings and practices of the actors involved. This not only includes studying and interpreting their tastes and preferences, but also taking into account the symbolic, imaginative and affective dimensions, opening up the debate on the quality of public space to include those types of changes mapped out by the various ‘turns’ (i.e. spatial turn, affective turn and performative turn) in contemporary sociology.
In March 2022, we have asked: ‘For which sociological question is quality the answer?’ in an international workshop jointly organised with the Collaborative Research Centre Re-figuration of Space at Technische Universität Berlin hosted by Department of Social and Economical Science (DiSSe) Sapienza. During the workshop some interpretative frameworks emerged. With this call, our aim is to amplify them and outline a first investigative and interpretative map regarding the different aspects and dimensions of the quality of the public space.
We welcome contributions on the following research questions:
– Quality and/or qualities of the public space: dichotomy or relationship? What implications?
– Space and time: how this changing relation transforms the quality of public space and its representations?
– Global processes of re-figuration of space and local agency: what kind of relations and implications are relevant for the quality of public spaces?
– Assessing the quality of public space: what kind of orders of value, fields and institutional logics are/should be taken into account in the construction of indicators systematically assessing this quality?
– Spatial transformation processes of large urban centres, negotiations/conflicts in urban redevelopment and planning projects.
– Agency and the quality of public space: how can this relation be explored looking at social movements, membership and resistance?
– Questioning the quality of public space in everyday life: what forms of affectivity, atmospheres and symbolizations are at play?
– Third spaces, radical, digital and virtual spaces: how they contribute to the construction of space? What implications for the quality of public space?
– Ideas, images and projects for a sustainable future. What quality(ies) of public space are relevant?
Carmona M. (2010), Contemporary public space: Critique and classification, part one: Critique, «Journal of urban design», 15, 1, pp. 123-148.
Carmona M. (2015), Re-theorising contemporary public space: a new narrative and a new normative, «Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability», 8, 4, pp. 373-405.
Elias N. (1978), The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners, Translation from German by Edmund Jephcott of Über den Prozeβ der Zivilisation. Soziogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen, Vol. 1, Oxford,Blackwell – New York, Urizen Books.
Gerbaudo P. (2021), The great recoil: Politics after populism and pandemic, London, Verso Books.
Knoblauch H., Löw M. (2017), On the Spatial Re-Figuration of the Social World, «Sociologica», 11, 2, pp. 0-0.
Knoblauch H., Löw M., Stollmann J., and Weidenhaus, G. (eds.) (2021), Polycontexturalization: A Spatial Phenomenon – Special Issue, «Sozialraum.de», https://www.sozialraum.de/guest-editorial.php#fn1
Löw M. (2008), The Constitution of Space. The Structuration of Spaces Through the Simultaneity of Effect and Perception, «European Journal of Social Theory»,11, 1, pp. 25–49.
Worpole K., Knox K. (2007), The Social Value of Public Spaces, York, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Deadlines and guidelines
30 November 2022: Deadline for abstracts submission (max 500 words in English).
15 January 2023: Notification of accepted abstracts.
31 March 2023: Deadline for papers submission (40.000 characters in English, including abstract – 250 words – spaces and bibliographical references. Paper will be subjected to double-blind reviews).
30 July 2023: Referees’ reports for authors.
15 October 2023: Deadline for the final versions of the papers.